Category Archives: race

Alice Dunbar Nelson–Poet of Harrisburg

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gotten more interested in the specific connections of the “New Negro Renaissance” that I took up in my book to my own specific location in Harrisburg.  While we tend to think of cultural movements as emanating and developing only in the major metropolitan centers (and so we equate the New Negro Renaissance Alice_Dunbar-Nelsonwith Harlem, or at most with Harlem and Chicago), it was in truth a national and even international movement, that touched culture in many different times and places.  Harrisburg, I learned a few years ago, was a well known center for jazz and a regular stop for big bands and jazz and blues musicians such as Cab Calloway and many other large and lesser lights.

This past week my colleague Jean Corey sent me a clipping (which she received via Alice Dunbar nelsonHarrisburg historian Calobe Jackson) regarding Alice Dunbar Nelson.  I had absolutely zero inkling that Dunbar Nelson was associated with Harrisburg at all, but she apparently lived here for at least a couple of years after her second marriage.  The attached clip from the Harrisburg Telegraph notes her wedding to Robert J. Nelson who worked in the state government.  There are a fairly large number of references to Alice Dunbar and Dunbar-Nelson in the Harrisburg Telegraph, even after she apparently left the city–references to speaking engagements at Harrisburg churches and the like.  I’ll have to follow up further later.

Gwendolyn Bennett of Harrisburg

Although I’ve published my book on the Harlem Renaissance, it remains one of the pleasures of the scholarly life to continue to learn and discover yet more about things I gwendoline-bennettfeel I know quite well.  One thing that has continued to interest me is the ways in which the “Harlem” Renaissance extended and had connections to many places, including my home town of Harrisburg PA.  I wrote briefly about Esther Popel Shaw’s connection to Harrisburg, and discovered, or was reminded (one of those things I think I knew, but never followed up on), that Gwendolyn Bennett, one of the most significant poets of the younger generation had a Harrisburg connection.  According to this clip noted by Harrisburg Historian, Calobe Jackson, Jr., she made the honor roll in 1917.

Gwendolyn Bennett, Honor studentAt this point I haven’t been able to determine much more than these scant biological connections, but I am intrigued with the role that regions some distance from our cultural centers end up playing a role, major or minor, in the lives of our writers and in the larger movements that they create.  I discovered a similar connection to Alice Dunbar Nelson that I’ll note in a later post.

Review of Goodbye Christ?–American Historical Review

It was nice to find another review of Goodbye Christ?, and the first I’ve seen in a print journal of some substance.  Tiffany Ruby Patterson from Vanderbilt University does a very thorough overview of the book and has some kind words to say.  Unfortunately behind a paywall for now, but you can find it here if you have access.  A couple of short excerpts:

In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers has written a deeply researched and fine-grained study of how issues of masculinity and Christianity are entangled in the writing and worldviews of African American intellectuals in the twentieth century. He argues that the New Negro Renaissance was not a secular period as some have argued but one where secularism and Christian beliefs competed in shaping the struggle for leadership. Instead he demonstrates that the period was a moment when “Christian religious practices provide the backdrop, characters, imagery, and theme of most of the important work of the Renaissance, even when they are deployed to resist the religious traditions that they reference” (15)

This study also speaks to the work that still needs to be done on Christianity, non-Christian belief systems in America, gender matters, and intellectuals.  Goodbye Christ? is grounded in excellent research and is meticulous in its arguments.  it is a must read for scholars of religion, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual leadership.

So, must read. Do.

Exclusion and Embrace–Miroslav Volf

51CPp63bTcL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some years ago my wife, Shannon, occasionally wrote reviews of classic books for a publication for
gifted high school students. Although I don’t think there is an official genre know as the re-review, I think there probably ought to be. In a day and age when most people fail to read even one book a year, much less a relatively challenging and completely serious and comprehensive work of theology, perhaps we readers ought to take it as part of our role to reintroduce books from decades past to readers for whom they will be new, if not unheard of. It’s in that spirit that I take a few minutes to write out some thoughts on Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, a book first published in 1996. Still in print and available 22 years later from Abingdon Press, I felt Volf’s wrestling with questions of identity and the possibility of embrace spoke to our own period, if only because in the age of Trump we seem to be wrestling more starkly, and perhaps more helplessly, with the questions that drive Volf’s reflections. Can we all just get along, much less embrace, in the face of random police shootings in the name of civil order, family separations in the name of national security, lethal white unity rallies with good people on all sides on all sides, and the general belief that we are so hopelessly separated by our different identities that empathy is beside the point and, in the words of Roxane Gay, we should all just stay in our lanes?

I would like to think a work of theology could solve all this; indeed, Volf indicates that it is the real work of theologians to be about the business of helping to form subjects who could bring about the world of embrace that he imagines. There is a generosity of vision in Volf’s book that I find admirable, even compelling. His central concept of embrace is not a campfire Kumbaya version of hugging it out, but a compelling narrative of what it means, or at least ought to mean, to be a fully realized human being. For Volf, the notion of embrace is inherent in the mutual and overspilling love of the Trinity, as well as the fundamental character of God’s engagement with human beings; the incarnation is a metaphysical embrace of humanness, and the cross is an appeal to be embraced in return. Human beings are only fully realized as human beings when we actually seek to give up our separateness and embrace others as we find them. As he puts it:

the most basic thought that it [the metaphor of embrace] seeks to express is important: the will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil”

It is unfortunate, of course, that we often experience our religion most fundamentally as an act of exclusion, whether in the practice of shunning, hellfire and brimstone preachers, or the simple and more mundane acts of making sure our church services and gatherings for fellowship feel comfortable for the already comfortable, and uncomfortable for the already discomfited or destitute. And so Volf’s work is surely a challenge to the good and the just and the true among us. He notes with approval Nietzsche’s reminder that the crucifixion was an act of the righteous:

Nietzsche underscored the connection between the self-perceived “goodness” of Jesus’ enemeies and their pursuit of his death; crucifixion was a deed of “the good and just,” not of the wicked, as we might have thought. “The good and just” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good (61)

At the same time, Volf’s prescriptions sit only uncomfortably with current conceptions of justice and empowerment, not least because the proper goal of a world formed by the concept and practice of embrace is not freedom or self-realization, at least not as these terms have been typically thought of in both our modern and post-modern socialities. Volf’s work asks us to imagine the ideal of embrace not as the coming together of two fundamentally separate individuals “hugging it out” when it comes to their differences, but rather as a complex dance in which we realize that we cannot be what we ought to be until we learn to genuinely love those that we have despised, and even more that we find it in in ourselves to love those who have despised us. As he puts it:

At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that the “others” need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers. As I read it, the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the “sons and daughters of hell.” (85).

This kind of call sounds strange to our age of tribalism, though perhaps no stranger than any age where we find it easy to love those like us, less easy to love those unlike us, and not possible at all to love those who do not love us. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so different from the famous proclamation from Martin Luther King, Jr. that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Volf has a complicated, and I think useful, description of embrace as a fourfold process:

The four structural elements in the movement of embrace are opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again. For embrace to happen, all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace, and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression and, paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement. (141)

This structure seems to me to both recognize and respect the integrity of others in their freedom. Embrace cannot be forced; nor is embrace limitless. Nevertheless, in Volf’s understanding, embrace is necessary to our full humanity, to forgiveness, and ultimately to justice and the task of creating the kind of society in which we might hope to live and flourish as human beings.

As I said at the outset, I think Volf’s book is worth reading since it is eerily contemporary in its impulses and in its wrestling. We can learn from him even where we disagree. I do think that if the book were written now, he might have to ask harder questions about the relationship between justice and love, between embrace and power. It’s very clear in Volf’s work that he subordinates justice to love, saying that embrace has to shape the definition of justice, that embrace is “about love shaping the very content of justice.” This is well and good, but it remains unclear that embrace is possible outside the possibility or at least the horizon of justice. From my own position situated within the matrices of power as a white male American middle class human being–all affording me pleasures and potentialities and possibilities that others do not possess in an unjust world–what does it mean for me to offer embrace in the absence of justice. Is it possible to expect embrace outside the quest or journey toward justice. Volf’s book reflects on repentance as a part of this process, but I think he could use even more thinking here in the particular ways that repentance is properly not simply a turn from the self and toward the other (ultimately God), but is also and must be a turning away from injustice–and my participation in it–toward justice, away from a life in which embrace might be colored with the expectation of inevitable betrayal and toward a life of mutuality that in some ways must accompany embrace. Although I think we would do well to wonder whether subordinating justice is any more appropriate as a Christian ethic than would be the subordinating of one person of the Trinity to another, I do think the Volf’s wrestling is worth our reckoning with. It is surely the case that 20 years later we are no closer to the beloved community that embrace would supposedly make possible than we were when Volf wrote this very good and important book. View all my reviews

The Good Lord Bird: A Review

16171272“The Good Lord Bird” is a book I ought to like. I liked McBride’s first autobiography, “The Color of Water,” an appreciative remembrance/meditation on being a black man with a white mother. I liked McBride personally when he visited Messiah College. He is a fantastic musician, whose passion for music I share. Like most America’s I’m intrigued by the fanatical John Brown. The novel’s theme is race in America, the fatal subject of many of the greatest American novels from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to Absalom Absalom to the Invisible Man to Beloved. It’s James McBride’s fourth book, about the time in a career when one starts to see signature work produced. It was chosen for the National Book Award. Everything things about it says BIG. Good writer, big book, big subject.

But the book left me cold.

Well, really somewhat more than lukewarm, which feels like cold when you are eagerly expecting greatness. I liked many passages. It was better than watching netflix…most of the time. But I expect more than that from a National Book Award Winner, and couldn’t help but wonder what the judges were thinking, though it also crossed my mind that American fiction must have been in a bad way in 2013 if this was the best we could produce. Apparently this thought crossed McBride’s mind as well since, according to the Times story on the 2013 NBA ceremonies, McBride was stunned to have won and didn’t even prepare a speech.

The book has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn. indeed, the novel’s cover insists on it, evoking the ubiquitous straw hat that seems to accompany every edition of the novel and rendition of Huck’s story since that American classic was written. Henry, the novel’s protagonist, is a cross-dressing early adolescent struggling to find his own way and own identity in a world full of people who impose their vision of what he is or ought to be at will. There is no river–a good bit of the novel takes place in the plains of Kansas and Iowa, in its own more desiccated way as stark brutal and unforgiving a wild thing as the Huck’s Mississippi. In a different sense, John Brown himself is Henry’s river, a wild thing, a force of nature with a logic and will of his own that bends things to himself, like a Kansas tornado or a Mississippi flood, and does the bending in part through his own fanatical certainty in the will of God.

But the differences between Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird also point to the latter’s narrative problems. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is a character of its own, but it is never the character that we care about. From the opening sentence we know we care about Huck Finn and coming to know him. The river is finally an occasion for the main narrative character, and not the other way around. If the river drives Huck through coincidence, or if Huck follows it where it carries him, finally the reader follows Huck, only sticking with the river because of that human story. In The Good Lord Bird I could never muster a lot of concern from Henry, who followed John Brown for no good reason, didn’t seem to want to be there, and didn’t seem to learn all that much by his travels. In the Times story cited above, McBride says he enjoyed writing the novel because “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around.” The novel has that feel. That Henry is just falling in to the world and following John Brown around for no reason we can adequately figure out. In this sense, the novel feels all the way through a bit like Huck Finn feels in its disappointing conclusion, when Huck Finn, who has captured our imagination and matured before our interior eyes, turns freedom and maturity into a banal melodrama at the hands of his would-be mentor, Tom Sawyer.

In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, McBride thanks the many who kept the memory of John Brown alive. I’m not sure this book will do that very well. When, for the space of several dozen pages in the middle of the novel, John Brown disappears from the scene and Henry is left to his own devices, we realize we just don’t care that much about him. And if Henry is not himself a compelling character, if Henry is not more than an empty sleeve of a boy becoming a man, then we can’t really find John Brown all that compelling either. Adolescents drifting through life are compelled by many things, some of them profound, many or most of them not. John Brown is a terrifying and complex figure in American History, one that Americans still feel uncertainly as both a brutal terrorist and a freedom fighter, and feel this contradiction all the more so in that Brown was indeed on the right moral side of the arc of history when it comes to the story of race in America, unlike so many other of our white founding fathers and mothers. But because Henry does not himself seem to struggle in any meaningful way with the desperate question of whether in pursuing freedom we are winging into flight or stumbling over a precipice, we ultimately don’t feel in this John Brown the terror that can be the birth pangs of freedom. Instead, McBride’s John Brown seems to shift uncomfortably between being a joke and being meaningfully sincere.

A worthy subject for a netflix melodrama, but I was hoping for more.

Kimi Cunningham Grant on Japanese American Experience

Last month I had the chance to hear Messiah alum, Kimi Cunningham Grant, read from her work and talk at The Midtown Scholar Bookstore with poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf about her new book, Silver like Dust. The conversation was wide-ranging touching on the elements of the writing process, on issues associated with Japanese American history and experience, and on Kimi’s own grappling with her identity as a bi-racial writer whose connections to her Japanese American heritage have grown over the years interviewing her grandmother and writing the book. I still have a blog vaguely planned related to Kimi’s book; I think there’s some really interesting things in there about books and reading. But for now I’m just happy to share this podcast recorded by the folks down at the Midtown. Catherine Lawrence and Eric Papenfuse do a tremendous amount for our community and for the world of books and writing generally. I’m glad we’ve got this record of a good event

.Kimi Cunningham Grant at the Midtown with Julia Spicher Kasdorf